When Fernand Moureaux unveiled Suze at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889, the bitter aperitif stood out among competition for its unique distillation process. Rather than fortifying the liqueur with wine, Suze deployed a gentian root distillate as its base that, when combined with a top-secret blend of aromatics, gave the aperitif a burst of bitter, floral, sweet, and spiced notes the fair’s judges would eventually fall for.
The beverage won a gold medal, and almost instantly, Suze was a hit. Aside from its critical acclaim, its quick ascension is largely thanks to Moureaux’s advertising approach, which involved slapping Suze imagery on everything from glassware to transportation to posters. By integrating Suze into the lives of the French and sponsoring popular events like the Tour de France, by the 1930s, the aperitif was one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in France.
Bottled at 15 percent ABV, Suze has been enjoying extra success stateside in recent years, likely due to the rise in popularity of bitter ingredients and cocktails like the Negroni, which has inspired variations like the White Negroni that swaps in Suze in place of Campari. Now that you know the basics, here are eight more things you should know about the aperitif.
The origins of Suze’s recipe are up for debate.
According to the official Suze website, the aperitif was created in 1885 by Moureaux and business partner Henri Porte as a means of saving the family distillery that Moureaux had inherited that same year. Taking inspiration from his sister-in-law Suzanne Jespart’s love for gentian drinks, Moureaux believed that gentian root distillate would be the perfect thing to set his aperitif apart from those on the market. The two men then collaborated with Félix Lebaupin, director of the laboratory at the family distillery, to develop the recipe.
A conflicting story, though, argues that it was actually a Swiss herbalist named Hans Kapeler who created the recipe for the liqueur. In this version of history, Kaipler — who hailed from Sonvilier in the Swiss Jura — fell ill and sold the recipe to Moureaux in 1885. Regardless of who the true inventor of the recipe was, Suze was registered as a brand on November 18, 1989 to the F. Moureaux & Co., Distillers in Maison-Alfort, France.
The story of the aperitif’s name is equally as muddy.
Thanks to the mystique surrounding the true inventor of Suze’s recipe, the exact origins of the brand’s name are also up for debate. If the recipe for the aperitif was developed in France by the team at the French distillery, then Suzanne Jespart did more than inspire the creators to use gentian: She also contributed her nickname. If the second story is to be believed, Suze’s name likely references the Suze River, which runs through the Swiss Jura where Kapeler once lived. And, coincidentally or not, gentian grows there abundantly.
In the 134 years since Suze’s launch, the bottle has yet to change.
When planning the Suze launch, Moureaux knew that he would need the aperitif to be packaged in a flashy bottle if it was going to have any success on the market. So in 1896, a few short years before the product was unveiled, Henri Porte designed a tall, angular bottle with a simple yet recognizable label that showcased Suze’s signature yellow and orange colors. To this day, Porte’s original 19th-century bottle design is used to house every batch of Suze.
Suze is the subject of a Pablo Picasso painting.
As Suze rocketed to popularity in France in the early 1900s, it quickly became a mainstay and an essential part of Paris’s café culture. After painter Pablo Picasso moved to France in 1904, this café culture became a popular subject of his art, and in 1912, the iconic creator released “Verre et bouteille de Suze” or “Glass and Bottle of Suze,” a collage composed from fragments of newspaper, wallpaper, construction paper, and a peeled-off Suze label. Created in the artist’s signature cubist style, the piece layers the aperitif’s label over news on the First Balkan War, and is thought to be a commentary on the absurdity of modernity that is reading about atrocities while still enjoying leisurely things. More simply, the artwork also serves to represent cafés as a whole in 1910s Paris with cigarettes, ashtrays, newspapers, and Suze serving as important cultural iconography.
The spirit is produced in a factory partially designed by the Eiffel Tower’s architect.
Since 2003, Suze has been produced at a factory in Thuir, France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains known as Caves Byrrh. The factory dates back to 1892 and was constructed by traveling merchants Pallade and Simon Violet so the two brothers could produce more Byrrh, a French aromatized wine they had invented in 1866. During construction, the brothers recruited the help of Gustave Eiffel to design a station hall at the factory where goods could be received and transported out. The architecture of the station hall was completed incorporating elements of Eiffel’s notable metalwork and mimics the style of his most recognizable structure, the Eiffel Tower. While that area of the premises is no longer used to process shipments, the original architecture remains.
Suze is made using both wild and cultivated gentian plants.
Since 1889, Suze has been made using gentian plants harvested from the French Alps and French Pyrenees mountains. With the highest concentration of bitter flavors appearing in the roots, it can take between 20 and 30 years for a gentian plant to mature to the point in which it can be used to produce the aperitif. So when spirits giant Pernod Ricard acquired Suze in 1965, it implemented a unique cultivation program to ease the ecological strain placed on the wild plants that does not include fertilizers or irrigation to grow gentian specifically for Suze production. Pernod Ricard is the only producer in the world to use this kind of gentian cultivation strategy, which allows for gentian to be harvested in 10 years as opposed to wild gentian’s typical two to three decades. All roots used for Suze production — whether wild or cultivated — are harvested by hand, and can measure over three feet in length once fully grown.
Rather than distilling a spirit from the gentian root itself, washed and cut pieces of gentian root are actually placed into barrels filled with neutral alcohol and sealed, where they are then left to macerate for at least one year. Once maceration is completed, the roots are then pressed and the spirit is distilled with a tool designed specifically for Suze production. The gentian-infused distillate is then infused with the brand’s ultra-secret botanical blend before it is bottled and shipped out.
Until 2012, the aperitif wasn’t available in the United States.
Though Suze has been made in France since before the 20th century, the aperitif has only been available to purchase stateside for a mere 11 years. Prior to the 2010s, the only time Americans would be exposed to the spirit was in French cafes abroad or on the back bars of those who had smuggled a few bottles back with them on trips to Europe. Eventually, demand for the bitter liqueur reached such heights that Pernod Ricard was finally able to attract the attention of Domaine Select, the only distributor willing to bring Suze into the U.S.
Suze has a few other bitter blends beyond its original aperitif.
The Suze that is known and loved today isn’t the only product produced under the label. Pernod Ricard also produces Racines de Suze at the factory in Thuir, which is made from gentian roots over 25 years old. Bottled at 36 percent ABV, Racines de Suze is also more aromatic than standard Suze as it has been enhanced with an orange infusion. In addition to liqueurs, Suze also has a line of cocktail bitters including cinnamon-forward aromatic bitters, red aromatic bitters spiced with aniseed, and orange bitters that offer a citrusy edge.